Keeping Infants, Toddlers, and Children Safe as They Play in the Winter Cold

As temperatures drop, it’s still important for children to get outside and play.

Winter is here and in many places across the United States – it’s cold outside with wind, snow, and ice. As temperatures drop, it’s still important for children to get outside and play. It’s a bit more complex as parents and caregivers need to ensure the children are properly protected from the cold.

To adequately prepare, it’s vital to know the actual temperature and the wind chill factor, to know how many layers and what type of clothing will protect children in cold weather.

Infants

Babies are very susceptible to cold temperatures as their bodies lose heat quickly and they cannot tell you when they are cold. Newborns and infants shouldn’t be outside in extremely low temperatures for any length of time. Even a short trip from the house to the store requires wrapping the baby in layers and protecting any exposed skin from frostbite. Blankets are important for the car as heavy jackets and coats must be removed when the child is placed in the car seat. As a general guideline, infants need one layer more than adults.

Toddlers and Preschool

As they grow into toddlers, children become more excited about their environment and should experience playing outside in the cold. Make sure the toddler is wearing layers that include warm socks, warm shoes or boots, thick pants or snow pants, a heavy coat along with a warm hat and gloves or mittens. If there is snow, make sure the hands and feet are kept dry. Play time outside for toddlers in cold weather should be limited – preferably less than 30 minutes. Of course, if temperatures are extreme (below zero actual or wind chill), keep the children indoors to play.

Elementary School Age

Older children should also wear layers and make sure they are protected when playing in the cold. Although more aware of the cold and its impact on their bodies, elementary school age children may not go inside when they are cold, especially if they are playing in the snow. It’s important to allow outside playtime but check to ensure their clothing remains dry and check their hands and feet often.

children playing outside

All children spending time outdoors in cold weather should be watched closely to make sure they don’t get too cold. Hypothermia, a dangerous lowering of the body’s temperature, and frostbite, damage to the body due to cold, can happen quickly. The cold can injure children, especially when hands and feet get wet from melting snow. If you notice a child shivering or if they start to mumble or slur their speech, get them to a warm place. Remove any wet or cold clothing and wrap them in warm blankets. Offer them warm drinks and if they don’t improve, seek immediate medical attention.

Frostbite occurs when the skin is exposed to cold temperatures for a length of time and most often occurs on the extremities (fingers, toes, ears, nose, cheeks, etc.). If a child says their skin is tingling or aching, they should get inside immediately as their skin may become numb and turn whitish. If the skin appears to be frozen, seek immediate medical attention for proper rewarming.

Surprisingly, overheating can also be a consideration. When dressing a baby or toddler for cold outside temperatures, we sometimes overdo it. Older kids may spend time running around or climbing hills for sledding, getting warm from exertion. If you notice a baby or child sweating while outside, take them in and remove some layers. Make sure to remove any layers that may be wet from sweat – as this can freeze if the child goes out again.

As adults, we’re pretty good at listening to our bodies and understanding when we are getting too cold. However, babies and toddlers, and even school age children, need our supervision and help in protecting their bodies during the cold winter months.

children sledding

Tips to Protect Children in Cold Weather

  • Use layers for warmth. Layers can include a shirt, sweatshirt, and coat. For pants, it may mean a tight-fitting pair of pants with waterproof snow pants on top. By layering, children can peal off one layer or add layers to manage the outside temperature and amount of exertion. Make sure several pairs of socks are used to protect the feet as well as hats, scarves, and mittens to protect the head, neck, and hands.
  • Supervise play areas. School may be out, and roads may be closed but it’s important to supervise children and their play area. Sledding in the street may seem like a good idea to a child but it’s extremely hazardous to be near cars on slick roads with limited visibility. Find safe play zones for children including yards or neighborhood parks.
  • Check their exposure. Children may not understand the signs or able to tell an adult they are too cold. Check each child frequently and assess if they are wet or their hands or feet are too cold. Ask them if they feel any tingling or numbness in their fingers or toes.
  • Decide on a time limit. Children that are having fun in the snow or cold may not want to come inside so having a time limit can set their expectations. It will be easier to get the children inside when they are prepared and if possible, share that the children can go outside again after they warm up. While warming up, encourage them to drink lots of water or serve warm beverages and soup.

Outside exercise and activity are important for children to learn and develop, even during the winter. Toddlers can get restless in the house and young children love to make snow balls and go sledding. These play time activities as well as going to the store or park in the cold are appropriate to do with children of all ages. When going out in the cold, remember to use proper clothing and protection to keep children warm and safe.

Keeping Toddlers Safe at Grandma’s House

To protect the safety of children, the childcare provider must identify and mitigate potential risks in new situations.

“Let’s visit Grandma!” Toddlers are naturally curious about their surroundings and visiting new places is exciting, but it can also be dangerous. Every place has its own challenges and dangers and Grandma’s house is no different. To protect the safety of children, the childcare provider must identify and mitigate potential risks in new situations.

You can run this quick checklist to mitigate potential risks; but remember – each home is unique and there may be dangers that are not captured here. First, look at the environment from the child’s perspective, this is a new and exciting adventure with lots of new things to explore. Then, before turning the child loose get down on the floor and look at everything from their level.

Family Living Areas:

  • Make sure all breakable items are moved out of the child’s reach.
  • Clear pathways if possible to reduce collisions and falls.
  • Inspect furniture and if the edges are a sharp, cushioned corner protectors and edge protection pads may be needed.
  • Secure all large pieces of furniture as furniture tip-overs are a risk that can happen in any room of a house. A child may climb, fall against, or pull up against a piece of furniture.
  • Seal off all electrical outlets with safety plugs whenever possible. Make sure all electrical cords are out of reach.
  • Never leave a child unattended in a room with a fireplace that is burning. Children can get burned from hot glass or safety screens if they get too close. Children should be taught from an early age that fire is dangerous, and fireplaces are off limits.
  • Whenever possible, close off access to stairs with safety gates at both the top and bottom. When babies start to crawl they sometimes see a staircase as an exciting challenge.

Kitchen:

  • Store dangerous items including soaps, cleaners, furniture polish, matches, sharp objects, and breakables – in high cabinets or locked up and out of sight. If some of these items must be stored in a lower cabinet, make sure the cabinet has a child safety lock.
  • Make sure any of Grandma’s decorative refrigerator magnets are out of reach as children are often drawn by the colorful magnets and want to see how they taste.
  • Keep garbage in a child-resistant can or behind closed doors in a locked cabinet. Many garbage cans contain plastic bags that can become wrapped around a child’s arm, leg, or neck cutting off circulation or they can be ingested and cause choking or suffocation.
  • Whenever possible, use the back burners on a stove so a small child cannot reach the hot burner. This can also keep a small child from grabbing a pot and getting burned or scalded by the hot content.
  • Be aware of ovens as the sides and/or front may get hot when in use. When opening the oven door, be aware of any small children standing close by. Children should not be close enough to touch hot surfaces or get a face full of hot air.

Dining Room:

  • Keep foods and condiments out of reach of small children to reduce the risk of burns from hot food and the potential for messes.
  • Do not keep a cloth on the dining table. Small children may pull the cloth and bring everything on the table down and on top of themselves. Instead, try non-slip placemats to facilitate clean up.
  • Make sure high chairs or booster seats are secure.
    • The high chair should be steady and not prone to tip over easily. A child should always be strapped into the chair, including the crotch strap to prevent the child from sliding down. A small child should never be left alone in a high chair – they may try to rise or push against a table or cabinet and cause the chair to tip.
    • Booster seats must be securely fastened to the chair so that it cannot slip or slide around. If possible, review the instructions that come with the seat to make sure it is installed and used appropriately. One risk as the child gets larger is that they may push against the table, causing the chair to tip and the child to be injured.

rubber duck in bathroom

Bathrooms and Laundry Rooms:

  • To prevent bathroom injuries, it’s easiest to keep the child out of the room with the door closed unless he is accompanied by an adult.
  • If there is a lock on the bathroom door, make sure it can be opened from the outside in case a child locks themselves inside the room.
  • Toilets are fascinating things to young children and the swishing water can be mesmerizing. Get in the habit of closing the lids of all toilets in the home.
  • Make sure that the washer and dryer doors are closed when the machines are not in use. Small children like to play hide and seek and may see the openings as hiding places.

poison help line 1-800-222-1222

Remove Potential Poisons:

Poison prevention is a vital part of childcare. If a child should ingest a poisonous substance, it is critical that the medical staff know what was ingested. Always store poisonous or toxic products in their original containers. Most containers are printed with ingredients and treatment information that is useful to the medical staff.

Every household with children should always have the local Poison Control Emergency Number or the National Poison Control Number (1.800.222.1222) readily available. If a child shows immediate medical problems from poison ingestion, call 911.

  • Keep cleaning products (bathroom, drain, and oven cleaners) and medications (both prescription and over the counter) out of reach of young children. Cosmetics and personal care items such as creams, lotions, toothpastes, mouthwash, and even some kitchen spices can result in poisoning in children under 6. These should always be kept out of reach of small hands, preferably in a locked cabinet.
  • Securely store all alcohol out of a child’s sight and reach. Alcohol is a poisoning threat that is sometimes overlooked but it can be deadly if ingested by small children. When the family is entertaining, make sure all bottles and glasses are out of reach of any small children.
  • Keep pods in their original containers and out of reach of small children. Pods are a convenient way to deliver dishwasher and laundry detergent, but they are generally brightly colored and can attract a toddler’s attention! The ingredients are very concentrated and toxic. See the Amslee article titled “Toddlers and Teens Poisoned by Laundry Pods” for more detailed information about this issue.
  • Check Grandma’s plants to make sure they can’t harm the children. Many plants found around the house are poisonous. You can request a list of poisonous plants from the local Poison Control Center.

While identifying and mitigating household risks is sometimes referred to as ‘childproofing’, remember that no home can be made totally safe for children. It is critical to constantly supervise young child while being of aware of potential risks and working to eliminate as many as possible.

About the Author: Marlene Malson. Marlene earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, a Master of Science in Operations Management, and is a graduate of the United States Air Force Air War College. During her professional career, she taught middle and high school students, and worked as a cost analyst for the Air Force. After retiring, Marlene has dedicated herself to her grandchildren, photography, and sharing her expertise as an adjunct faculty member with Amslee Institute.

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